Nashville, Season 1

"Stronger Than Me" Makes Us Weak
Talking television.
Feb. 28 2013 9:34 AM

Nashville, Season 1

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Was Rayna's song the best musical performance so far?

Peggy 2-27

Every week in Slate’s Nashville TV club, Katy Waldman will have an IM conversation with a different Nashville fan. This week, she rehashes episode 1.14 with June Thomas, a Slate culture critic.

June Thomas: Hey Katy! Sorry to be late checking in. I replayed Rayna's song and lost track of time. I've never done that before!

Katy Waldman: You’re forgiven! It was pretty haunting.

Thomas: I kind of loved it, though my enjoyment was tempered somewhat by trying to figure out if it was insensitive to sing it to a recovering alcoholic (“Pour me something stronger than me”) or a sign of how well they knew each other. Anyways, I just bought it. First time I've done that with a TV song since Mercedes sang "Break the Windows Out Your Car" in Season 1 of Glee!

Waldman: Is it just me, or was this episode particularly musical? Everybody sang: Juliette, Scarlett and Gunnar, Rayna (with assists from Pam Tillis and Kate York)…

Thomas: That's right! It's funny, at the beginning of the episode, I was thinking that it was foolish of the producers to give all the good songs (that is, all the songs I like most) to Scarlett and Gunnar, since they're the rookies of the show, and then Rayna goes and sings my favorite of the whole season.

Waldman: It's always strange and a bit goofy when Scarlett and Gunnar perform and an awed hush descends on the room. 

Thomas: Yep, the way everyone—real-life stars that even a country know-nothing me recognized as Music City royalty—was nodding and whispering, "They're the real deal" when they played at the Bluebird Cafe was kind of ridiculous. But at the same time...undeniable!

Waldman: Yes! There's a fatedness to those two, or at least, I think fate plays a role on the show. Especially this week, with the themes of birth and death. But Gunnar and Scarlett almost seem "destined for greatness," unbelievably cheesy as that sounds.

Thomas: Or perhaps it was all about how important a moment can be. There was a lot about families—how the people closest to you can either support and love you unconditionally, or let you down. Or sometimes both. Jolene failed Juliette when she was 9. Teddy lied and left Rayna with the press on her tail. Gunnar? He loved Jason and tried to do the right thing by him, but that kinda sorta maybe led to Jason being killed. Or Jolene breaks her sobriety and Juliette misses her chance to sing in front of that amazing crowd because she has to take her home. Things turn on a dime. The only love you can trust is from your yeller pup. If the cops had come for Gunnar just a few minutes earlier, he'd have missed his big chance. That's fate, I think.

Waldman: What did you make of Jason's death, the first mortality on Nashville?

Thomas: It shocked me. After the great trio the three of them played a few episodes ago, I had a vision of that little ménage as the next Lady Antebellum. But apparently that act is destined to be a duet.

I was even more shocked by the post-death makeout sesh, though. Is that a rational response to your collaborator, roommate, and friend hearing devastating news?

Waldman: That scene was thoroughly weird. Not only did the sexy stuff feel all wrong, tonally, but Scarlett isway too tender-hearted to consider nookie on such a grief-drenched occasion. The real Scarlett would have just sat there weeping sugar-water.

Thomas: Yes, I wondered if we're supposed to think that in all the hours she spent staring at her phone wondering what had happened to Gunnar, she realized how she really felt about him, but even if they'd sold that version of events—and they didn't—it felt all wrong.

Waldman: The adorable cupcake magic, on the other hand, was pure Scarlett.  

Thomas: That's the second show to pull that cupcake trick in the last month or so—was New Girl the other? It has given me a complex about my retro cupcake-eating ways.

Waldman: I eat them the traditional way too. I don’t need frosting in every bite.

Thomas: Once again, the city politics plot managed to find at least 10 ways to be ridiculous. It's the equivalent ofDownton's Bates in jail—so boring that it's better to ignore it. But let's just stick to one doozy: So the recently defeated Coleman would, within moments of getting the nonsensical request from the guy who played dirty to beat him, accept the position of deputy mayor? Even if Coleman thought Teddy was destined to leave office early (and divorcing Queen of Hearts Rayna James surely means he'd be a one-term mayor), that wouldn't be worth the humiliation.

Waldman: The point, though, was vindication of Teddy's character, rather than development of Coleman's, right? We're supposed to see Teddy turning over a new leaf, finding his integrity as a politician (ha), patching up the mess Lamar made.

Thomas: I might be a little more open to that interpretation if he hadn't just named his mistress to a Cabinet position.

Waldman: Oh, pshaw.

Thomas: The man's a snake. And since he's now taken it upon himself to get into a feud with Lamar, he's apparently a dumb snake.

Waldman: Well, Peggy’s pretty assertive. When’s the last time you’ve seen a randy TV character kick the door closed unironically?

Thomas: That was totally to provide a cheesy still for the jacket of the DVD release. Speaking of on-the-nose framing devices, how about poor Avery. Dude is on the outside looking in on the other happy, smiley people. Literally.

Waldman: Allow me to voice my profound critical thoughts on Avery. Glad I’m not you, Avery! It’s not that he’s squandered all our sympathy by being a jerk—he’s suffered enough to win some of it back, theoretically—but he’s got just one note, the hungry, brooding, narcissistic artist note, and for me it’s not terribly interesting.

Thomas: On the other hand, the Jolene story line saddens me. It has so much potential, and occasional moments of transcendence, but a lot of the time it feels totally rote. I bought her relapse—she's so new to sobriety, she's at a party with flowing booze (which is maybe more than a little insensitive given Deacon's well-publicized recovery), no one is paying her any mind. I can see her joining in on the toast to the man who saved her life. A little less convincing, though, is the boozy amends for Juliette's thwarted ninth birthday party. Or her sponsor who makes house calls.

Waldman: Donate! The gift that could keep on giving. His prettiness and the intimate moment in which he listens to Juliette sing made me worry that he and the younger Barnes may hook up. Hopefully he is just there to elicit revelations, such as the detail about the burning cigarette that Juliette put out to (grudgingly) save her mother’s life.

Thomas: That's what frustrates me about the Jolene/Juliette relationship. There are moments that are convincingly truthful and real. I understand why Juliette is so cold and guarded with her mother—and I applaud the show for being faithful to that story line even though it goes against the whole mom and apple pie thing. And I agree, remembering that moment when she chose to save Jolene was really powerful. But there's just something that holds me back from connecting.

Maybe I'm channeling my inner Juliette, angry at Jolene's pathetic weakness and hurt by her inability to play her role. Jolene is supposed to be looking after Juliette, and that hasn't been true since, well, at least since Juliette was 9.

Waldman: That's an interesting thought. I was going to suggest that the thing holding me back, at least, was Juliette's occasional abrasiveness. I can't quite invest fully in the storyline because sometimes Juliette turns into a horrible person I can't (don't want to) relate to. I don’t wish for another Scarlett, but it gets painful, watching Juliette reject her mother again and again.

Thomas: See, in the great game of "Which Nashville Character Are You?" I'm a Juliette. Thank goodness you're a Rayna.

Waldman: Phew! Glad you didn’t say I was Avery, after all.

Maybe this goes along with “Dear Brother” being a particularly musical episode, but it also struck me as an especially moody one, more atmospheric than dramatic. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but it didn’t seem to hold a lot of surprises (despite its surprise party). The whole thing felt pensive, subdued, melancholy.

Thomas: I felt the same way. Which is odd, right, given that we had Jason killed. S + G hooking up, and what I thought was the best song of the season.

About that song, too: Even though I really liked it, it didn't work in a musical sense. That is, I didn't know what Rayna was expressing. Sure, she loves Deacon, she finds him a challenge, but she'll be there for him. But we already knew that. If Nashville were a piece of musical theater, and in a sense it is, you'd want the mood of that song to act as a catalyst for a big change between those characters. A deeper connection, a rupture, something. But I couldn't read the vibe clearly.

Waldman: Maybe because it was just her singing to him. We don't know how it affected him or his feelings for her. I guess they did reconcile by the episode’s end, though that seemed more a function of the divorce than Rayna’s performance.

Of course, if the songs characters sing for each other reveal things about their relationship, it's also probably significant that Juliette was prevented from singing for Deacon at all.

Thomas: Yes—and Juliette was thinking about preventing Rayna from singing. "We'll see. I'll let you know," she said.

Waldman: Poor Rayna. Can you imagine anything more stressful than going grocery shopping with sister Tammy? I kept waiting for her to micromanage every piece of food Rayna put in the cart. It distracted me from the sisterly Real Talk.

Thomas: That shopping expedition was even more ridiculous than the Nashville politics plot. And couldn't the writers have done better than "COUNTRY QUEEN & MR. MAYOR CALL IT QUITS!" Seriously so-so.

Waldman: You mean: “Charming!”

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section.